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The Russo-Ukrainian War Through a Historian’s Eyes

With a new Cold War emerging, can Israel continue to sit on the fence?

Yehuda Bauer
March 29, 2023
Veronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Kyiv, UkraineVeronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

There is a historical background to the Ukrainian crisis, and it is hotly disputed. Experts disagree on when Kyiv was founded, but in the ninth century, Varangians (Vikings) established a hold over the site, and the term Rus’ may be a Scandinavian word. Russian nationalist historians dispute this notion, insisting that Slavic tribes controlled the area and possibly built a fortress there.

Mongol and Tatar tribes held sway in the area, and by 1240, the Mongol Empire, with Genghis Khan’s cavalry at the fore, had conquered not just what is now Ukraine, but also the thickly forested areas to the north. Moscow fell in 1238. Tatar communities sprang up, then and later, and some still exist in northwestern Belarus and in Lithuania.

As Moscow eventually emerged from the Tatar-Mongol yoke, Slavic groups and individuals, many of whom were rebelling against Muscovite feudal lords, settled in the plains to the south and established what became Cossack communities. Along with them, Slavic-speaking peasants established farms and settlements. Before and especially after 1569, a united Polish-Lithuanian kingdom controlled a feudal society in which Polish landlords ruled over peasants who toiled in their service. Jews settled in the townships and villages and served the lords as collectors of the peasants’ tribute while being exploited themselves. Ukrainian ethnonational consciousness evolved with the rebellion against the Polish lords, while the Jews were attacked as the middlemen who oppressed the peasantry.

Many Jews were slaughtered in the Khmelnytsky (Chmielnicki) Uprising of 1648-49, which precipitated a mass Jewish flight westward. The Muscovite Tsars fought bitter battles against the Poles. In Ukraine, they inherited the Polish system of exploitation, and the peasantry was held in vassalage and bondage by the Russian aristocracy. The Slavic dialects coalesced into a more or less distinct Ukrainian language closely connected to Russian, but different from it. A modern Ukrainian literature began to appear by the end of the 18th century. To this day, the areas of northern Ukraine—Polesie, the central geographic feature of which is the Prypjat’ River—are inhabited by people who, when asked before and after World War I whether they were Poles, Ukrainians, Belarussians, or Russians, used to answer that they were “local people” (tunajše).

During the Soviet period, Ukraine was constituted as one of the Soviet “Republics,” controlled, of course, by Moscow. However, Ukrainian national consciousness, in a Sovietized form, was allowed to exist and was manifested in a distinct cultural life. Between 1930 and 1933, in the course of the Soviet Five-Year Plan—according to which Soviet agricultural products were bartered for Western, mainly German, machinery and other industrial goods—vast amounts of grain were extorted from the peasants, mainly in Ukraine, precipitating a drastic food shortage. In the ensuing famine, some 3.4 million people died, although estimates vary. This is what is called the Holodomor (Death by Hunger) in Ukraine, and as it was directed from Moscow (yet carried out by local Ukrainian Communists), enmity toward Russian rule was the result.

During World War II, many Ukrainians under German occupation preferred it to the return of the Soviets. To that end, Ukrainian nationalists actively collaborated with the Nazis, and large units of Ukrainian collaborators aided in their war effort. Some participated enthusiastically in the mass murder of Jews in Ukraine and in other places to which they were dispatched. On the other hand, millions of Ukrainian soldiers in the Red Army—the brothers, sons, and fathers of Ukrainians in German-occupied territory—fought against the Germans. Some of the most famous Soviet partisan commanders were ethnic Ukrainians, and while there was widespread antisemitism among them, there were those who actually sought to combat that tendency.

After the fall of Communism, Ukrainian nationalists chose to identify with the wartime legacy of the collaborators, and many of those figures became the object of glorification. Independent Ukraine was plagued by massive corruption and a struggle between pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians. But what seems to have happened was the rise of a young generation that sought to establish a liberal government that would struggle against corruption. It was then that the Jewish-born actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared on the scene. As is well known, Zelenskyy comes from a Russian-speaking family of Soviet-Jewish intellectuals in Kryvyi Rih, and he learned Ukrainian as time passed. He left a career in television and founded a political party with an anti-corruption platform committed to the spread of Western liberalism and to an alliance with the West. In free elections, he garnered more than 73 percent of the vote—truly an unprecedented achievement, and more impressive still as his Jewish origins and identity were no secret. However, I believe that his lack of political savvy caused a much-too-hurried attempt to join Western alliances.

Like Joseph Stalin before him—but unlike the Tsars—Putin is unaffected by the weight of any moral considerations.

There is a fairly obvious Russian side to all this. The Soviet Union controlled East Central and Eastern Europe through the Warsaw Pact, and with the fall of Communism, Russia lost all of it, together with Georgia, Armenia, and the Central Asian republics. NATO could have only one potential adversary—Russia—and is therefore a hostile entity in Russian eyes, and I believe this is not just the stance of Vladimir Putin. With only brief interruptions, the lion’s share of Ukraine has been allied to or controlled by Russia ever since the partitions of the Polish kingdom at the end of the 18th century, and its loss to the European Union and/or NATO would place the Western adversary directly into the heart of a Russia trying to regain its influence and/or rule in as much of the former Soviet-controlled areas as possible.

It is understandable that the Kremlin should see Ukraine’s attempt to turn to the West as a casus belli. Perhaps a savvier Zelenskyy would have recognized this and would have tried to reassure Moscow by postponing attempts to join the European Union until a better opportunity arose at some point down the line. Entry into NATO was a dicier question still. Not pursuing those aspirations for the moment would not have meant abandoning the struggle for a democratic, open, and liberal Ukrainian society—but it would have meant not poking a finger in Russia’s eye. What followed was the traditional Russian method of conflict resolution: the infliction of maximum and relentless brutality, without any moral considerations, and the perpetration of mass atrocities against a hapless civilian populace. We are also witnessing stiff Ukrainian resistance that has given the Russian forces a run for their money and exposed their weaknesses and even ineptitude.

Zelenskyy’s fervent appeal to the Knesset on March 20, 2022, was quite an emotional affair. Unfortunately, he distorted the history of Ukraine in World War II when he claimed that the Ukrainians as a nation had behaved nobly in trying to protect Jews. Although there were certainly many noteworthy instances of selfless heroism, large numbers of Ukrainians in the territories occupied by the Wehrmacht either collaborated with the Germans—actively participating in the murder of Jews and the plunder of their property—or simply turned a blind eye to their atrocities. The notion that rescue of Jews was a widespread phenomenon is simply false. Zelenskyy’s pleas to various other Western parliaments were more persuasive.

The Israeli government has been trying to follow Washington, D.C.’s lead, accommodating Ukraine while maintaining a relationship with Russia that will enable it to continue attacks against Iranian targets in Syria. This fence-sitting is uncomfortable—even painful—and morally destructive. The result is that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is being used by Putin as a tool with which to maintain some contact with the West and gain time.

The Russian leader’s aim is quite clear: establish a puppet government in Kyiv that will be another version of Lukashenko’s Belarus, and finalize the inclusion of the two eastern regions centered on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Russia in much the way Crimea was devoured. The threat of Russia using tactical nuclear weapons is quite real, as it is unlikely that NATO would risk an all-out war by using its own nuclear arsenal against the country. However, the use of such weapons could endanger Putin’s rule over Russia, and the effect of such a move on his country cannot be calculated. Like Joseph Stalin before him—but unlike the Tsars—Putin is unaffected by the weight of any moral considerations; to him, only purely practical, military, economic, and political considerations, fortified by extreme nationalism and the support of the Russian Orthodox establishment, matter. It is too early to say whether Russian elites will necessarily follow his lead or whether he has jeopardized his political future by attempting to subdue an independent neighboring state.

Western responses, led by the Biden administration, appear to be quite effective—not perhaps in the short run, but more and more so as time passes. True, China supports Russia, though rather cautiously and perhaps not wholeheartedly. But a point may come, perhaps sooner than later, when Putin’s administration realizes that the price it is paying outweighs any potential advantages, and it will be willing to stop the war, leaving Russia with Crimea and the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as a pledge by Ukraine to desist, for now, from its attempts to join the European Union and NATO.

That would be a partial victory for the Ukrainians, but it would come at a heavy price. The question then might be whether the sanctions and the economic warfare against Russia will continue or be aborted. In any case, unless a new Trump administration, or something similar to it, succeeds the current one in Washington, D.C., the outlines of a global Cold War situation can be seen quite clearly: the West (North America and Europe) against China and Russia, with illiberal regimes such as that of India, and others in the Middle East and Africa and Latin America, and even a few in Europe, wavering, but not necessarily in any Western direction. At the moment, Israel can continue its fence-sitting, but it may ultimately have to choose a less-ambiguous course of action.

I do not know what the future holds. As a historian, I have great difficulties in predicting the past; regarding the future, sadly, I am totally at sea.

This article first appeared in Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, vol. 16 (2022), and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Yehuda Bauer is Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Academic Adviser of Yad Vashem. Prof. Bauer has authored over twenty books, mainly on the Holocaust and genocide (including genocide prevention). He is the recipient of the Israel Prize (1998) and the Emet Prize (2017).